Wolfe: Fountain of Youth
BORN: December 15, 1958, Philadelphia, PA. Currently resides in New York, NY
COMPOSED: 2019. Commissioned by the New World Symphony—America’s Orchestra Academy—and by Carnegie Hall, with additional support from a consortium of orchestras: Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony
WORLD PREMIERE: April 26–27, 2019. Michael Tilson Thomas led the New World Symphony at New World Center, Miami Beach, FL. These current performances mark the West Coast premiere
INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, piano, and strings
DURATION: About 12 mins
THE BACKSTORY Julia Wolfe moved to New York after completing her graduate studies at the Yale School of Music in 1986. With no ready-made niche for her genre-bending music, she created a new scene by co-founding the Bang on a Can collective with two other Yale alumni, David Lang and Michael Gordon. Whether writing for their in-house electric ensemble (the Bang on a Can All-Stars) or for major orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, Wolfe has preserved her iconoclastic ethos even as she has reached the highest echelons of musical achievement, including a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 and a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” She has become known for serious works on topics like exploitative labor practices, but for this commission from the New World Symphony, she and Michael Tilson Thomas decided instead to focus on “serious fun.” In her new work, Fountain of Youth, Wolfe pays tribute to “this incredible orchestra of young people” and Michael Tilson Thomas, “who is forever young,” while also recalling Florida’s legendary wellspring sought by Ponce de León in the sixteenth century.—Aaron Grad
During a visit to New World Symphony to workshop Fountain of Youth, Julia Wolfe described her inspiration for this piece:
Writing music for me is very autobiographical, almost frighteningly so. This piece in particular has a kind of build from the beginning. I’d say it’s intense pretty much all the way through, but different kinds of intensity. It’s a kind of playful way of working with tension. But it’s very, very personal. It’s me traveling down a path, tapping into this joyful sense of youth.
It’s incredible to get a phone call from Michael Tilson Thomas. He’s one of the greatest musicians of our time, and so forward-looking, so adventurous. When a composer has that opportunity to interface with him, it’s quite remarkable. He was talking to me about some of the work I’ve done, and some recent pieces have addressed very serious, heavy subjects: coal miners, garment workers, strife in the workplace. We were talking about, for this piece, going in a totally different direction, focusing on serious fun. And I loved that idea. I write a lot for electric guitar and amplified ensembles, it has that kind of rhythmic groove and that drive, and I thought, ‘Let’s bring that to the orchestra,’ that sensibility that is so me, and also that I knew Michael could have a lot of fun with, and of course be amazing at the podium.
Wolfe’s brief program note offers a more poetic take on the piece:
People have searched for the fountain of youth for thousands of years. The thought was that if you bathed in or drank from the fountain of youth you would be transformed, rejuvenated. My fountain of youth is music, and in this case I offer the orchestra a sassy, rhythmic, high energy swim.—Julia Wolfe
Aaron Grad is program annotator for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and is a regular program note contributor to the Cleveland Orchestra, New World Symphony, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, Celebrity Series of Boston, and others. Portions of this note originally appeared in the program book of the New World Symphony and are reprinted here with permission.